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Published in the 16-31 Jan 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Christians, Muslims praised for relief efforts

In a rare expression of solidarity, a right-wing Hindutva group in India lauded the "commendable" work done by Christian and Muslim missionary organizations in providing relief to the tsunami-affected people in southern India, according to the New Delhi-based Indian Express news agency on 3 January. 

Hindu family in Muslim dargah at Nagore

Hindu family in Muslim 
dargah at Nagore
(Source: Christian Science Monitor)

"The Sangh and its affiliates, like Sewa Bharati and Vivekananda Kendra, were not the only organizations to take action, but others like the Ramakrishna Mission, Christian and Muslims missionary organisations and educational institutions also rose to the occasion and did commendable human service," said an editorial in the latest issue of the RSS English-language mouthpiece, Organiser.

Although Sangh Parivar organizations have frequently been critical of Christian and Muslim missionary organizations, accusing them of being engaged in religious conversions, the latest editorial by the RSS was a show of solidarity after the deadliest disaster in almost three decades. 

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) was one of the first to respond by activating rescue measures in favour of the victims of the tsunami, which in this country alone killed more than 15,000 people. CBCI Secretary General Bishop Percival Fernandez said, "The Church is at the service of everyone, irrespective of religion and community". He also said that "all organizations and public bodies carrying out relief operations are most welcome to collaborate with the Church and their institutions to mobilize further resources and make them available to the people."

Fr. Anthony Sampathkumar a priest who is sheltering 300 Hindus in his church in Puthukuppam, a village 20 kilometres outside the former French colony of Pondicherry, said "There is blind trust in each other; the people are helping each other through their own tragedy. Each and every one here in our shelter," he went on to say, "has lost two or more family members to the tidal wave. The entire fishing village has been ravaged by the tsunami."

One of the first places to provide shelter to displaced survivors was Neelayathatchi Amman Temple. Built 2,000 years ago, it is an important Hindu shrine, according to Sethurama Gurukkal, who has officiated at the temple for 20 years. A Brahmin priest, his old-school training would normally look askance at the ritual impurities and inconveniences of more than a thousand people eating, sleeping, and washing clothes within temple walls. On top of that, UNICEF has built toilet facilities in the temple's front yard. Yet Mr. Gurukkal doesn't mind. "When these people are in distress, how can we speak of our inconveniences?" he says. The people camping at the temple belong to fishing communities that make up the bottom of the caste hierarchy, or are not Hindu at all. Periyanayam Arokiadas, one of the 40 or so Christians staying at the temple, was grateful for all that the temple management was doing. "They gave us clothes. They're giving us food." And she had no qualms about staying in a temple. "In our opinion, all gods are the same."

About 6 miles south of Nagapattinam, volunteers cleaned up Vailankanni, one of India's most important Roman Catholic shrines. One group clad in white dhotis and kurtas particularly impressed Arul Raj, who works for the church. He reckoned they were Hindus from their chants. "But Hindus or Muslims or whoever they were, they did so much. They sang bhajans [Hindu hymns] as they picked up bodies and buried them. That was very uplifting."

According to M. Krishnakumar, with the nongovernmental organization Avvai Village Welfare Society, Muslim-Hindu tensions simmer for a few days during religious festivals when processions are common, but generally cool off later. Christian conversion efforts have also been a source of tension. The state has been trying to pass a bill to outlaw proselytizing. But for now, old religious tensions have been swept away.

Among the hardest hit were fishermen, mostly Hindus, living in 300 huts along the coast in Nagore. Muslims belonging to the Nagore Dargah, a shrine located less than three miles north of Nagapattinam, picked up all the bodies they could find - about 320 - and buried them in their own graveyard. Survivors from the fishing community have been housed in the mosque. They're spread out everywhere except in the three holy shrines at the heart of the mosque. From the funds it receives, the Nagore Dargah has undertaken to not only feed and shelter them, but also to build them new houses, according to A. S. A. Kader, head of the Nagore Muslim Jamad Group.

"We've suffered, but the fishermen are worse off than us," said A. Abdul Aziz, a local politician. "We're united in our efforts. Such a friendship has been forged between us [Muslims] and the fishing community that we'll even give each other our daughters in marriage. In Nagore, there will never be religious contentions again." (compiled from various reports)

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